10/1/13: 100 Bloody Acres, In the House, This is the End, Disconnect, The East

100 Bloody Acres (NR, 2013, Doppelgänger releasing)
Sure, there’s a dead body in the back of Reg Morgan’s (Damon Herriman) truck. But don’t worry! As “100 Bloody Acres” makes evident straight away, it isn’t as terrible as it seems. Now, Reg’s decision to pick up three tourists (Anna McGahan, Oliver Ackland, Jamie Kristian) and give them a ride to a festival despite the contents of his truck? That idea absolutely is as terrible as it appears, because good luck convincing three strangers that the dead body is there for what, all things considered and for grave lack of a much better term, are pretty wholesome reasons. “Acres” has no appetite for deceiving viewers and keeping those reasons hidden or twisted. But it’s best to let the movie unveil them itself anyway, because the unassuming way in which it does so is so much more impossibly charming when you go in blind. Bad behavior runs temperately rampant, but it’s the darkly funny misunderstandings that truly wreak havoc, and no one — from Reg to his brother-slash-business partner (Angus Sampson) to his passengers and the little dog who may be the film’s only unconflicted character — is immune from dishing and taking mixed messages in equal volume. Presiding over it all is Reg, who at once is the master of ceremonies, the biggest dupe in the room and the kind of character who is nearly impossible not to love despite having so few reasonable reasons to actually do so.
Extras: Short film “Celestial Avenue,” Morgan Brothers television commercials, cast/crew interviews, two behind-the-scenes features, bloopers, storyboard gallery.

In the House (R, 2012, Cohen Media Group)
Behind a closed door but hardly in a manner that suggests fear of being overheard, Esther (Emmanuelle Seigner) remarks to her husband (Denis Ménochet) that even though it’s nice their son Rapha (Bastien Ughetto) finally has a friend to bring around the house, the kid’s too weird and shouldn’t be allowed back. Had we met Claude (Ernst Umhauer) when she had, it’d be easy to believe it’s that simple. And even with what we do know by the time Esther delivers her verdict, there’s still an air of merit to her conclusion. By this point, though, Claude is neither wholly responsible for, nor wholly honest about, his odd behavior. Rather, he’s using his gift as a budding writer to study what he perceives to be a banal middle class family and report his findings, in story form, to a disillusioned high school teacher (Fabrice Luchini) who has seized this could-be talent like a loose pearl in a relentless tide of students who cannot write, cannot think and do not care. Sixteen-year-old kids are trouble all by themselves. Brilliant 16-year-olds prodded to abuse their talent by a frustrated adult whose dissipated dreams are now reforming for reasons not totally clear? That’s just dangerous, and though “In the House” resists the urge to illustrate that danger in all the cheaply overt ways available to it, the broken glass on the road cuts just as sharply. Why play the cheap hand, anyway, when there are enough covert themes in play — multiple comings of age, reality-distortion fields, the potential cruelty of ambition and the tendency for ambition to turn on those who wield it carelessly, to name a sample — to make your head spin? “House” doesn’t appear to know, and the multi-layered parallel realities it weaves together so smartly, while keeping both feet on the ground, suggest it doesn’t really care. In French with English subtitles.
Extras: Deleted scenes, two behind-the-scenes features, bloopers, premiere footage, poster gallery.

This is the End (R, 2013, Sony Pictures)
Watching a group of friends put on a show like “This is the End” is akin to watching a dog and a baby play together onscreen: They may be taking direction, but only so far as it serves their pleasure, and they aren’t necessarily acting at all while doing so. Sometimes that kind of fun is so joyous as to become contagious. Sometimes it’s so insular as to alienate anyone who is reduced to witnessing a party in which they cannot participate. In “End” — a grand imagining of how James Franco, Craig Robinson, Seth Rogen, Jay Baruchel, Jonah Hill and Danny McBride, all playing what we can only pray are alternate-dimension versions of themselves, would compose themselves the day the apocalypse comes to Hollywood — both outcomes so fiercely battle and wear each other down that the laziest form of criticism is all that’s left standing in the end. So here’s the deal. At this point, you likely know how your body reacts to the combining of Rogens, Francos and Robinsons. If it’s laughter, “End” — which includes extremely literal callbacks to the group’s past collaborations among its unapologetically A-to-B references — will likely produce more. If not, this parody of and ode to previous movies you already do not like is the ultimate non-starter (even if Michael Cera’s brief but spectacular interpretation of Michael Cera is something everyone, love or hate him, should eventually see).
Extras: Rogen/director commentary, deleted scenes, eight behind-the-scenes features, bloopers, alternate takes.

Disconnect (R, 2013, Lions Gate)
It was inevitable that movies like “Disconnect” would start popping up before long, and it probably was inevitable that before one comes along and gets it right, this would happen first. “Disconnect” presents a trio of separate but slightly crisscrossing stories that collectively concern themselves with our new rules of engagement in chat rooms, social networks and online communities. None of these stories completely falls flat, and each has more going on than some insulting fable about the scary dangers of trusting people who turn out to be crazed monsters in person. But even with an intelligent touch, “Disconnect’s” themes — bullying, identity theft and assuming too much (good or bad) sight unseen — comprise a what’s what of what someone expects from a movie tasked with too much timely ground to cover and only 115 minutes during which to cover it. Time is by far “Disconnect’s” biggest enemy, forcing it to tell stories that are good for some drama but have a tendency to flinch and let another story tag in just when things appear to get really interesting. The bullying story is particularly frustrating as it navigates through some seriously tricky terrain before parlaying it into the drama you expected all along. Had that story, or perhaps any of them, received “Disconnect’s” undivided attention and courage, we might be talking about one of 2013’s most provocative dramas. Instead, it’s a polished, thoughtful, entertaining but mostly toothless also-ran in a race that has not yet ended, much less been won. Jason Bateman, Andrea Riseborough, Paula Patton and Alexander Skarsgård, among others, comprise a strong ensemble cast.
Extras: Director commentary, two behind-the-scenes features.

The East (PG-13, 2013, Fox Searchlight)
Fittingly caught between the manifesto that ignites it and the unsettlingly pat conclusion that sends it home is “The East,” which spends most of its time similarly wedged between accessibility and conviction in a manner that’s bound to dissatisfy more than not. In “The East,” a group of (circle one!) activists/eco-terrorists, also named The East, are bent on punishing three separate corporations by turning their toxic product back on them. New to their ranks is Sarah (Brit Marling), and though her introduction makes it clear something isn’t normal about her affiliation with the group, details beyond that remain fuzzy. And that’s fine, because “The East’s” early going is so drenched in message (the aforementioned manifesto, set atop some truly stomach-turning images from the Gulf Coast oil spill, sets the stage), the vague prospect of conflict is a crucial coup in the film’s desire to entertain first and proselytize to the converted second. Then, as if emboldened, that desire to entertain takes partially though not completely over, leaving in its wake a conflicted movie that seems to want to take a stand but doesn’t quite know how to express its convictions with actual conviction. Whether one agrees with the messaging or not, “The East’s” roaring start teased the beginnings of a story where punishment is carried out without concern for how it looks or how uncomfortable it gets for the audience watching along. There’s still some of that, there’s considerable thought invested into the characters we get close to, and there’s one scene wherein “The East” beautifully threads a potentially disastrous needle in illustrating (and possibly justifying) the wavering of conviction. But along with all that is way too much time spent on Sarah, the flatly stock upshot of her affiliation, and the toxic effect her muddied mindset has on a film that should, results be damned, have no such mud in its veins. Alexander Skarsgård and Ellen Page also star.
Extras: Deleted scenes, six behind-the-scenes features.

9/24/13: The Kings of Summer, Iron Man 3, Simon Killer, Room 237, Aleksandr's Price

The Kings of Summer (R, 2013, Sony Pictures)
Joe (Nick Robinson), all of 15 years old, has had enough of the oppressed high school freshman lifestyle. His best friend Patrick (Gabriel Basso) is driven so crazy by his overbearing parents that he’s literally developed hives. As for Biaggio (Moises Arias)? He’s just that strange kid whose personality makes it hard to discern whether he’s a product of creepiness or worldliness. Either way, he’s the strangely perfect complement for his two new sorta-like friends when they decide to just bail on their comfortable but socially smothered lives and live, if only for the summer, off the land in the nearby woods. Nothing about that makes much sense, and the cocktail of weirdness, wisecracks and comically fake-looking teenage beards that comprises “The Kings of Summer’s” sights and sounds is just deliberately out there enough to suggest all the senselessness is by design or at least welcome. But there’s an electric thread of angst coursing underneath all that silliness that, naive 15-year-old vessel or not, is too resonant and too dangerously appealing to just brush aside. Have you not dreamt, possibly today, of just quitting everything and cutting all of life’s silly obligatory fat until all that remains is some food, some people you care about, some stars in the sky and perhaps a roof for when it rains? “Summer” is the oversimplification of that fantasy, but as it juggles a dry comedy, an adventure and a drama with an occasional penchant to seethe, it’s an infectious manifestation of it. And with respect to the naive kids living out the dream, perhaps “Summer’s” sneakiest asset is the way all three boys carry out dialogue clearly written by (and for) daydreaming adults without breaking character, acting older than their age or alienating the teenage crowd who probably thinks this movie is for them. (It isn’t, but let them believe otherwise if they want.)
Extras: Deleted/extended scenes.

Iron Man 3 (PG-13, 2013, Disney)
You know what makes even the worst “Iron Man” movie leaps and bounds better than most other superhero films? Numerous reasons, actually, but the opening 15 seconds — wherein we watch a gallery of Tony Stark’s (Robert Downey Jr.) suits mysteriously blow to pieces while he narrates a speech that goes from profound to comically pointless to kinda sorta thoughtful again in three blinks of an eye — offer some clues. “IM3’s” biggest problem is that it’s late to a party that includes a first movie that surprised everybody, a worthy sequel with a great villain and a supergroup side project, “The Avengers,” that rates among the best superhero movies ever made. Here, the threat arrives in the form of a terrorist group, and a dubiously large amount of motive is borne out of what the film demonstrates as a rather petty grudge. Stark’s witticisms are familiar bordering on stale, the halo of fame that trails him is fully stale, and after a thousand movies about terrorists launching missiles at our country, do we need a 1,001st? But just when “IM3” seems resigned to being a decent but tired final chapter in yet another epic trilogy that’s one movie too many, something — something funny, something clever, something sweet, something sardonic, something technologically awesome or something that blows up and looks good doing so — happens. The third (and a half) chapter in Iron Man’s ascent to the cream of the superhero power rankings isn’t big on big surprises, but it’s loaded with some ingenious small ones that give surprising life to a nearly comatose outline. Don Cheadle, Gwyneth Paltrow, Guy Pearce, Rebecca Hall and Ben Kingsley also star.
Extras: Writer/director commentary, deleted/extended scenes, three behind-the-scenes features, bloopers.

Simon Killer (NR, 2013, IFC Films)
Though this unquestionably is his story and though we ride shotgun with him the whole way, there’s something about Simon (Brady Corbet) — a New Yorker and recent college grad doing some post-painful breakup head-clearing with a stay in Paris — that vaguely but immediately feels just a bit off. And where Simon goes, so too does “Simon Killer,” which doesn’t venture along a story arc so much as it skates some messy figure eights through the psyche of a wayward heart in search of affection wherever it may avail itself. That, perhaps, is the closest one can get to branding “Killer” with a pitch-sized premise. But that search for something takes Simon down some morally nebulous avenues, and as those lines blur, “Killer’s” genre lines do the same. Is Simon the guy he says he is, the guy those early impressions suspect he may be, or just a messy in-betweener too ravaged by a bad breakup to figure himself out, much less let us know either way? “Killer” doesn’t have the luxury of time to fully drill to the core of the answer, though the clouds that form above are thick enough to make one wonder if the world itself has that kind of time. Even if it did, would the answer be a comfort or would it undermine what turns out to be a uncomfortably engrossing character study? Theories likely abound, and “Killer” makes it fun to pass them around after the show’s over.
Extras: Behind-the-scenes features, stills gallery.

Room 237 (NR, 2012, IFC Films)
“Tiresome!” isn’t exactly a word anyone feels good about seeing in the space of a movie poster where the questionably-edited raving critical quote goes. But there may be no more concise compliment and/or condemnation for “Room 237,” which collects a handful of opinions — from fans and scholars or lunatics and conspiracy nuts, pick your side — about the meaning behind seemingly every last frame that comprised the 1980 Stanley Kubrick film “The Shining.” In a fashion that’s neither completely free-flowing nor meticulously structured — divided by speaker, despite none being formally introduced or shown on camera, instead of approaching the film chronologically — “237” picks apart “The Shining” any which way it can. A theory about the appearance of Dopey the dwarf on the wall? Sure. A connection between text on a room key and Kubrick covertly confessing his role in faking the moon landing footage? Yup! The significance of a window that, according to one theorist’s map of the hotel, couldn’t actually exist? For everything from poster designs to curious perspective shifts and paper tray placements, “237’s” relentlessly verbose panelists have one elaborate explanation after another about what Kubrick was communicating under the table to his audience. And with zero desire to take a breath between hypotheses about the film and its director’s restless mind, “237” is primed to wear its audience out — whether mind-blown, overloaded, amused, exasperated, side-split or outright angry at the sheer volume of conspiracies spilling over the side — no matter who the audience is. The uninitiated, in particular, should think twice (or pop an aspirin) before engaging. There’s a temptation initially to recommend “237” to fans of film theory regardless of their familiarity with “The Shining,” but the film quickly enters a whirlwind of disorganized insularity that’s completely impenetrable if you don’t know the source material well (to say nothing of not having seen it at all).
Extras: Commentary, deleted scenes, panel discussion, two behind-the-scenes features.

Aleksandr’s Price (NR, 2013, Breaking Glass Pictures)
There are sympathetic characters. There are sad sacks. And then, to the complete bafflement of both, there’s a guy like Aleksandr (Pau Masó), whose ability to somehow still be alive stands in remarkable contrast to how unable he is to maintain control over his own free will. Framed inside sessions with a therapist (Anatoli Grek) whose aptitude is questionable — early pearls of wisdom include “You’re a good person. I can tell by the look in your eyes” — Aleksandr’s story begins at the end as he remarks that his desperate situation as an illegal Russian immigrant, left broke and alone in New York City after his mother commits suicide, has led him down a road of bad choices. But there isn’t really a word (“bad” certainly doesn’t suffice) to describe just how poor Aleksandr is at making choices — or, more precisely, how unable he is to make any choice at all as he just kinda shrugs, stumbles and tumbles into one horrendous idea after another while simultaneously offering nothing but hurt and headaches to the few people in his life who aren’t bent on treating him like a doll. Dire straits is one thing. But to watch “Aleksandr’s Price” is to watch a video game where the main character strives to redeem himself in the cutscenes while the player controlling him drives his car off a cliff and sets him on fire when the action resumes. “Price” doesn’t seem bent on humiliating Aleksandr for its own enjoyment — the almost comically cruel ending really makes you wonder, but Masó also wrote, directed and dedicated the film to his parents — but the lengths it goes to crush sympathy into paste make it a wonder what “Price” actually is after. Aleksandr’s therapist’s insistence that only Aleksandr controls his life is as vanilla as advice gets, but in the context of everything that happens here, it sounds only slightly less ridiculous than that bit about his trustworthy eyes.
Extra: Masó interview.

9/17/13: Behind the Candelabra, Somebody Up There Likes Me, World War Z, The Smurfs: The Legend of Smurfy Hollow, Greetings From Tim Buckley, The Bling Ring

Behind the Candelabra (NR, 2013, HBO)
“Behind the Candelabra’s” biggest problem is perhaps the biggest problem a production like “Behind the Candelabra” can have: We don’t know how much, if any of it, is really true. Is that a problem for you? Is the prospect of Matt Damon initially portraying a 17-year-old — Scott Thorson, whose book of the same name, and its disputed honesty, provides the narrative on which “Candelabra” is tightly based — a problem for you? These are the issues that nag at the enjoyment of “Candelabra,” which purports to document a strange, exciting and ultimately volcanic period in which famed musician Liberace (Michael Douglas) courted Thorson as a friend, assistant, lover and/or son. What? Yeah. As a document of history, “Candelabra” is the word of one man against another man who cannot respond, and thus — unfair or not, we’ll never likely know — it’s dubious. How much that matters, in the face of how sophisticatedly uncaged “Candelabra” is as theater, is up to you. But purely as drama, “Candelabra” is a wild good time, embarking with shaky wheels and careening into an affair that finds its two participants emotionally ravaged going in and sends them through a whole different wringer on the way out the other side. Regardless of the veracity of the story told, the fire of those reenacting it here — most visibly Douglas as he basks in and owns Liberace’s opulence, but more significantly Damon as he gradually roars to life as the only person capable of reducing the whole spectacle to ash — is hard to deny.
Extra: Making-of feature.

Somebody Up There Likes Me (NR, 2013, Tribeca Film)
At two points in “Somebody Up There Likes Me,” Sal (Nick Offerman) — dishwasher, ice cream magnate, nosy neighbor and the closest Max (Keith Poulson) can seemingly get to both a constant and a best friend — remarks how “it’s funny that we all sorta think we’re not gonna die.” And when you hear it the second time, it’s akin to turning a crossword puzzle upside down and reading the answers that were in front of you the whole time. “SUTLM” is a comedy about Max, who isn’t any one thing so much as he isn’t much of everything. He’s a lackadaisical waiter, a limp ex-husband, a middling friend and a pretty damp character in general around which to build a comedy. When “SUTLM” pushes forward with its story without prodding Max the same way, it’s enough to make one wonder if something’s up or if this is all there is to yet another slacker comedy about a whole lot of not much. Turns out, rather cleverly, that it’s both. Mileage will vary as to when (and possibly if) the message lurking inside fully avails itself, but “SUTLM” has a point, and that point is biding its time in plain sight nearly the whole time. That alone may not redeem Max’s story in the eyes of those who came here to laugh — “SUTLM” is amusing, but dryly more than hysterically so — nor is it the kind of epiphanic “ah ha!” moment that will inspire legions of viewers to re-plot the trajectories of their lives. But the clever way “SUTLM” sneaks up on its audience may inspire just a little bit of amused introspection, and that, in the face so, so many coming-of-age stories that expend so much more effort and come away completely empty, is no trivial trick. Jess Weixler and Stephanie Hunt also star.
Extras: Writer/director/Offerman commentary, writer/director/Offerman Q&A, Offerman interview.

World War Z (PG-13/NR, 2013, Paramount)
Fifteen, 10 or maybe even five years ago, “World War Z” would have dropped jaws and blown minds. But the zombie revival happened, followed by the zombie oversaturation, various parodies of zombie fever and a chronic case of zombie fatigue. That’s where we sit as “WWZ” arrives, and when yet another opening clip montage blames the outbreak on our environmental neglect before the outbreak even breaks out, our dread is reserved for the potential onslaught of tired grandstanding instead of hungry undead. Those fears, thankfully, never materialize. But that doesn’t mean “WWZ” doesn’t have problems — or more specifically, a dearth of solutions — on its plate. Those scenes from “WWZ’s” trailers, of insane masses of zombies taking over a jetliner and coagulating into Voltron-esque masses of inhumanity the size of city blocks, are as visually awesome in their extended form here as the brief glimpses suggested. When the fight scales down to tunnels and abandoned hospital wings, it does so smartly. In flashes, the film even flirts with levels of crazy (David Morse) and humane (Daniella Kertesz) that could have taken it somewhere special with more time. Mostly, though, “WWZ” feels like the polished but unremarkable final draft of the countless grimier but more exciting first drafts that preceded it. Remember the first time you saw a lumbering zombie break into a terrifying full sprint, or the first time you saw a mass of zombies that filled the screen for miles? Remember the first time a movie basically blamed you for the hell you’re watching? “WWZ” arrives way too late to capture firsts like that. And when it rides a dubious wing and prayer to a half-measured conclusion that feels like a setup for an even tardier sequel, it’s hard to discern what, if anything, people will say about it a few years and several hundred more zombie movies from now. Brad Pitt stars.
Extras: Unrated cut with seven extra minutes, two behind-the-scenes features.

The Smurfs: The Legend of Smurfy Hollow (G, 2013, Sony Pictures)
It’s easy to forget, based on the reputation-tarnishing personality of the two semi-live action movies, just how effortlessly delightful “The Smurfs” is when it’s allowed to just be a cartoon. Here, albeit with some curious qualities of its own, is a reminder. As the pun makes clear, “The Legend of Smurfy Hollow” is a Smurf-ified retelling of “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” Whether it’s timed to capitalize on Halloween, the new “Sleepy Hollow” television show or both isn’t clear, and one can only speculate (perhaps cynically as well) why nearly all the packaging makes “Hollow” look like a computer-animated special when the CG stuff is a wrapper for the traditional cartoon that comprises the heart of the story. No matter. Borrowed lore and calculated marketing theories aside, “Hollow” is a simple treat and, despite being a new production with expensive voices (Fred Armisen, Alan Cumming, Hank Azaria), an immensely welcome throwback to everything that made “The Smurfs” so pleasant before New York City and live humans barged into the frame. Hollywood loves a good reboot, so can someone in Hollywood please scrap whatever plans there may be for a third live-action “Smurfs” movie and replace them with something that looks like this instead? No extras — a bummer considering the main feature is only 22 minutes long, but not a deal-breaker given the $5 price tag.

Greetings From Tim Buckley (NR, 2013, Tribeca Film)
By brute force alone, Penn Badgley comes alive as late singer Jeff Buckley and nearly (maybe successfully) saves a movie that, namesake aside, is really about him when it’s about anything at all. “Greetings From Tim Buckley” sets itself in 1991, before Jeff had ever performed before a live audience, to say nothing of matching and eclipsing his late father’s fame. When a group in Brooklyn endeavors to stage a Tim Buckley tribute show, they reel in Jeff for a live debut that’s poetic in all ways except one: Jeff barely knew the man, much less understood or connected to him on a level even his fans achieved. So how to reconcile those feelings with the excitement of not only stepping into Tim’s shoes and on stage, but also meeting the woman (Imogen Poots) who immediately becomes his new muse? Clumsily and often languidly, it seems. The blame for what happens in “Buckley’s” second act and beyond falls neither on Poots nor especially Badgley, who flings himself into the role and, when the opportunity arises, puts an thrilling charge into what could have been the same old scenes in record stores and on trains. But “Buckley” spends too much time fumbling around looking for its emotional center (and emerging with the obvious) to provide many of those opportunities. The joy of watching “Buckley” should come in watching the younger Buckley find the voice that made him so revered (and, now, so missed) as an artist. There’s some of that here, but it’s no match for the volume of father issues that feel disconnected enough to have originated from any old movie about any old musician.
Extra: Cast/director Interview.

The Bling Ring (R, 2013, Lions Gate)
If the aliens invade and declare the human race unfit for saving, it very well could be because the UFO they rode in on had “Spring Breakers” and “The Bling Ring” as its in-flight entertainment. Of the two, the shockingly listless “Ring” reigns easily as the bigger offender, because its source material — the true story of seven floundering high schoolers (Emma Watson, Israel Broussard and Katie Chang, among others) who, between 2008 and 2009, burgled Hollywood A-listers’ homes to the collective tune of more than $3 million — should at least be an ironically comic layup if not an engrossing straightforward one. But more troubling than any dramatized teenage crime ring is how drearily empty “Ring” feels as it spins a purposeless wheel of music montages, faux-edgy drug binges, Facebook selfie flipbooks and pretty much every other telltale ingredient of adolescent fiction that purports to chew on the cutting edge but forgot to pack its teeth. At no point does any real storytelling emerge — perhaps because, beyond the novelty of a bunch of self-absorbed kids knocking over their self-absorbed idols’ homes, there’s nothing worth talking about here. Only during the home stretch, when “Ring” frames comeuppance as a life lesson in much the same way a teenager might lecture her grandparents about the meaning of life and hard work, does it elicit a reaction. Sadly, it’s merely gratitude — first at the chance to laugh at such a sorry attempt at spinning the morality bottle, and secondly because the closing credits closely follow to quickly put this sorry show out of its perceived misery.
Extras: Behind-the-scenes features.

9/3/13: From up on Poppy Hill, I Do, Now You See Me, Empire State, Cockneys vs. Zombies

From up on Poppy Hill (PG, 2011/2013, GKIDS/Cinedigm)
With the 1964 Olympics a year away from their arrival in Tokyo, Japan is ready to embrace its role as host and take perhaps its largest step yet in the post-war healing process. Unfortunately for Umi and Shun, the logistical price of hosting the event includes the destruction of their Yokohama school and the use of that land for other purposes. A grassroots movement to save the school brings the two students together, and separate circumstances from their respective pasts grab the baton to complicate things from there. And that’s it — no magical creatures, no magical worlds, no fantastical developments. Sight unseen, it doesn’t sound like a Studio Ghibli production at all, does it? Nope, and “From up on Poppy Hill’s” almost unapologetic devotion to simple storytelling is practically destined to turn off those who watch it continually waiting for something beyond a straight story and a couple twists to unfurl. That’s unfortunate, too, because the hallmarks of the Miyazaki family’s fingerprints — from the visual style to the soundtrack to the delicate but never frail formation of the characters and their circumstances — is fully present and accounted for, and those hallmarks soar even without the prospect of undiscovered worlds to entice things along. “Hill” is set in a place well-known and a past well-worn, but Studio Ghibli’s best hallmark of all — a passion for doting on the minute details that get to the heart of who someone is and what brings them alive — turns Yokohama into a world as rife for discovery as any other.
Extras: Original Japanese cast recording, Goro Miyazaki interview, two behind-the-scenes features, feature-length storyboards, Hayao Miyazaki speech and press conference, music video, 16-page companion booklet with liner notes from Goro and Hayao Miyazaki.

I Do (NR, 2012, Breaking Glass Pictures)
“I Do” wastes almost no time dropping a two-ton burden of guilt on Jack’s (David W. Ross) shoulders after his dropped wallet leads to a freak accident that kills his brother and leaves his pregnant sister-in-law Mya (Alicia Witt) a widow. Surprisingly and perhaps fortunately, this rather major event is background material and not the main story road for the film, which fast-forwards a few years and finds Jack helping raise his niece Tara (Jessica Tyler Brown) while staring down the expiration of a visa that could deport him back to his native England for years. What should happen next is probably obvious — except it isn’t, because Jack is gay and the prospect of using Mya for a green card is morally unfathomable given the circumstances responsible for her being unmarried in the first place. “I Do” is full of little caveats that are just big enough to derail the whole train, and its handling of those caveats pays considerable dividends. The film easily could have coasted into an endless cycle of insufferable bleakness thanks to those early developments, and it could just as easily have devolved into a hamfisted lecture in disguise when the discrepancies over straight versus gay rights come into play with Jack’s citizenship hanging in the balance. But “I Do” does neither, touching those issues sharply but doing so in a way that’s subtle, heartfelt, occasionally funny and silly, and in a manner that treats characters like characters instead of vessels for a message. Jamie-Lynn Sigler also stars.
Extras: Cast/crew commentary, deleted/extended scenes, crew kitchen confessionals, original Kickstarter pitch video, behind-the-scenes feature, photo gallery.

Now You See Me (PG-13, 2013, Summit Entertainment)
The magicians (Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson, Isla Fisher, Dave Franco) taking the stage in “Now You See Me” aren’t simply magicians: They’re also thieves who rob banks as part of their act and reward their audience with the spoils. Naturally, neither the FBI (Mark Ruffalo) nor Interpol (Mélanie Laurent) is as on board with this trick as the public is, and so the race is on to catch a band of brilliant and dangerously confident thieves who remain seven steps ahead of their pursuers but also a step behind the mysterious mastermind who has devised this act for them. “NYSM” has a race of its own going on, with a good movie and a bad movie furiously swapping leads up to and beyond the obligatory final twist. The clever premise makes for an engrossing open, and “NYSM” buoys itself with some amusing and clever plays on the agents-versus-illusionists gimmick. A presentation style that gorges on theatrics and never takes itself seriously is a nice touch too. But amid all “NYSM” does well, there’s an indulgence of dialogue that occasionally turns good actors into hams who are funny for the wrong reasons. The twists and chases grow increasingly ludicrous and reckless the more they pile up, and amusing or not, the presentation’s voracious appetite for self-indulgence can get wearisome when “NYSM’s” logic struggles to hold itself together. Then, of course, there’s the final twist, which wedges itself into a final chain of events that was precarious enough as is. “NYSM” is, altogether, pretty awful — except, of course, when it’s great fun, which, albeit sometimes in spite of itself, it often is. Such is the fate of a movie that, like the occasional magician, doesn’t necessarily believe in its audience’s intelligence but bends over backward in hopes of pleasing the crowd anyway. Morgan Freeman and Michael Caine also star.
Extras: Director/producer commentary, deleted scenes, two behind-the-scenes features.

Empire State (R, 2013, Lions Gate)
The true story on which “Empire State” is based — of a retired cop’s son (Liam Hemsworth as Chris), the best friend (Michael Angarano as Eddie) who sandbagged his chance to join the police academy, the job he took at an armored truck depository, and the historically expensive inside job robbery they planned of the place when Chris crossed the disgruntled employee threshold — sounds intriguing. Once multiple organized crime rings enter the picture, it becomes fascinating, and when the fate of the millions in play is revealed, it’s deflating that we didn’t just get a documentary instead of a dramatization. That’s the awkward position “State” finds itself in, and it’s powerless to fight the increasingly emboldened notion that this is secondhand entertainment instead of the real thing (especially when we get a taste of that real thing right at the end). Oh well. With all that said, what we do get certainly isn’t bad. “State” is pretty superficial with regard to the makeup of its characters, offering mannerisms and motivations but little beyond the shallow and obvious. But as a story about two guys who have no business being on this playground, much less dictating its rules, it’s rarely dull and has energy to spare. The portrait of 1980s New York and the people who roamed its streets veers on the side of cartoony at times, but given how well-worn these themes and settings are, going overboard beats limping in any day. Dwayne Johnson and Emma Roberts also star, though neither quite so prominently as the cover art suggests.
Extras: Director commentary, deleted scenes, two behind-the-scenes features.

Cockneys vs. Zombies (NR, 2012, Scream Factory)
It’s a crisis half-straight out of “The Goonies.” Ray (Alan Ford) faces eviction from his retirement home via property developers bent on demolishing it and repurposing the land, so his two grandsons (Harry Treadaway, Rasmus Hardiker) engage in a desperate treasure hunt in hopes of saving it. The differences here are (a) the boys are a good deal older than your typical Goonie, and (b) their idea of treasure hunting is attempting, for the first time ever and quite poorly even for a first attempt, to rob a bank. Then, of course, there’s the zombie outbreak that sends the whole thing even more sideways than it already was. The title really does say it all: There are amateur criminals with cockney accents on one side, zombies on the other, and more than enough ineptitude to cover the entire battle that commences. With any imagination and experience seeing zombie movies, you probably can spell “Cockneys vs. Zombies'” storyline and comic tone without even seeing it, and you’d probably be pretty accurate. That isn’t what you’d call glowing praise, but there’s no good reason to condemn a movie that simply wants to have extremely literal fun in a really familiar way so long as it succeeds in doing so. And “Zombies” certainly does that, thanks to an overt willingness to be silly, kinetic, gross, amusing (and occasionally funny) and even lovable enough to keep things entertaining in spite of how familiar so much of its surroundings look.
Extras: Two commentary tracks, behind-the-scenes feature.